My mother used to say that death smelled of sulfur. That there was not such a thing as a sudden death because there were always telltale signs that someone was about to die. A black fly hovering over a deathbed was a sure sign that the sick would never recover. A dark butterfly affixed to a window looking in on the living was a clear death sentence. Even vultures sometimes could foretell death by marauding the sky above the unaware.
To accept the concept of sudden death was, to Mom, to admit that her god possessed a mean streak fit for a wretched mortal, not for a benevolent creator like the one in whom she so fervently believed. Surely neither her god nor her army of saints, virgins, and the countless souls that dwell in purgatory would allow humans to depart this world without saying their goodbyes. That was a bunch of nonsense. Death was a process, something that happens in phases customized by a creator according to individual circumstances. Death was a tunnel, a passageway into hell, heaven, or purgatory. One final hurdle before entering a vast universe of nothingness.
Yet she died unexpectedly, proving herself wrong.
I like to think that the night she died, she thought of me, her youngest. That on her way to bed, she stopped, looked at herself in the mirror, and wondered if in thirty years, I would look just like her reflection. And that she nodded and smiled. That she remembered the conversation we had fifteen years earlier and said to herself: I’ve got to talk to Adriana and tell her to ignore what I said. To blame it all on the feeble mind of an Alzheimer’s patient who sometimes confuses reality with fiction and whose tongue sometimes gallops freely, paying no mind to peripheral sentimentalities. That she was lucid enough to want to call me and recant, which is to say, to lie. And I would have believed her.
Alaska. That was as far away from home as I could get when I first left Colombia. Two years later, in 1993, when I was beginning to grow roots in the Last Frontier and fully convinced that I was going to be buried under its permafrost, I asked Mom to spend a summer with me. It was her first time out of the country, and everything around her seemed to possess a glittery splendor: the fast highways, the big cars, the bears and moose wandering in backyards, the all-you-can-eat restaurants, the enormity of the Alaskan mountains, the stout anatomy of the Eskimos and the Athabaskan people, the proximity to the North Pole. Everything so new, everything so exciting, everything so vast.
At first, she seemed to have short periods of confusion. Jetlag, I thought. But as the days passed, I realized that Mom’s mind was taking involuntary trips to a dark island where nothing happened and nothing existed, a faraway place where silence was king. She would sit still, like she was under a hypnotic trance, not a blink or a twitch, staring at nothing in particular. Impassive, mute, pitiful. She stayed like that—sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for a few minutes. Her mind seemed to have a mind of its own.
It was a perfect summer solstice day in Alaska. Daylight hours: twenty. Temperature: mid-seventies. Chance of rain: negligible. Humidity: low. Flowers in bloom: wild irises, lupines, monkshoods, forget-me-nots, fireweeds, bunchberries, jewelweeds, salmonberries. Since it was such a perfect day, I decided to take stock of my life. I was married, had a daughter, a house, a car, spoke a foreign language, anthropology was my new passion, had loving friends and for the first time, it felt, a life of my own, away from family, country, and church. But there was something that I had always wanted to know. Something that I needed to hear from Mom, foolishly thinking that this would close the chapter of my life as a child and start a brand new one as an adult woman. It had to do with my beginnings. Just like humankind had always been interested in its inception—creation, the Big Bang, anything that explained where we come from, I felt entitled to the history of my making.
By midday my six-year old daughter, Mom, and I were on Parks Highway en route to Eklutna Glacier. We drove with our windows down, humming to old songs, stopping only to allow my daughter to crack knock-knock jokes that Mom didn’t get or to sing Barney songs that Mom had never heard before. I looked at us as I drove. There we were, three women, three generations, confined in a truck, slowly moving north toward the end of the earth.
Twenty-six miles later, we were in Eklutna village. I wanted to show Mom the tiny, colorful buildings called Spirit Houses that the Dena'ina Athabaskan people built atop the graves of the deceased.
“What are the houses for?” she asked.
“To house the spirit of the dead,” I said.
“You don’t need a house after you die.”
“Don’t they look pretty, though?”
“What’s the point if the dead can’t see them?”
“Well, some people bring flowers to their dead. The Athapaskan build tiny houses.”
Mom gave me a sideways look. “Don’t you even think about it. You hear me? I don’t want a house on my grave.”
“You think I’d like yet another landlord knocking on my gravestone? I had enough of those in my lifetime, thank you very much.”
She laughed, I laughed, even my daughter seemed to get the joke.
“Will it get dark today?” she asked.
“No. Same as yesterday. And the day before. You’ll be asleep by the time it gets dark.”
“I’ve never heard of a place like this,” she said. “Daylight all day long. Imagine how much cleaning you can do.”
We drove past the blue, frozen valley that is the glacier, past Thunderbird Falls and its roaring waters, past a throng of Japanese tourists clicking their cameras at a moose grazing, past the vast and empty spaces of Alaska, until we arrived in Mirror Lake, one of the best in the state for trout fishing.
We sat on its shores and had a picnic. We lay on a blanket and held hands, Mom to my right, my daughter to the left. Mom was particularly lucid that day. She was her old self, witty and sardonic, and we gossiped about my sisters and relatives. No one was spared. No topic off limits. This was a mother-daughter moment, a few woman-to-woman minutes that I had been longing to have all my life. We were equal now. I was a wife, a mother. The mysteries of womanhood had already been revealed to me.
As I watched my daughter trying in vain to do cartwheels on the sand, I asked Mom, “Do you remember when you were pregnant with me?” I put my arm around her.
“Oh yes. I remember each of my five pregnancies.”
“Six,” I whispered in her ear. Her lobe was fuzzier and longer than I remembered.
I should have stopped. I should have realized that if she could not remember how many children she’d borne, pressing for details about her last pregnancy would be too much for her.
As it turned out, it was too much for me.
“You ought to understand that you weren’t planned. I already had five children,” she said as she patted my hands, rubbed my forearm, tapped her fingers on mine. “Your father was never around, but I can tell you this, he, for sure, came to visit me five times.” She smiled. A naughty joke from mother to daughter. “Five visits, five children. Get it?”
“Yes, six. Anyway, your brother, your four sisters, your Dad, when he was around, and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment in the projects. Can you imagine that?” she asked, taking her eyes off the water. Her face turned left until our gazes locked. Her eyes that used to be dark brown were now turning grey. “The last thing I wanted was another baby. So you can imagine when I found out I was pregnant. Oh, Jesus. That was terrible.” She looked back toward the water.
The trout were restless. We could see their silvery scales shining in and out of the water, gaping mouths, hungry gills, eyes that look in opposite directions like those of dragons.
“And so I did what I had to do to stop you from being born. I mean, we were struggling. Food, rent, uniforms. Everything.” Mom shook her head and cocked it a bit as if the motion refreshed her memory. “I went to a bruja I knew. She gave me the drink. It was a thick, slimy, green thing that would take 24 hours to make the baby, you know, go away. Only it didn’t.”
I took a beer out of the cooler and gulped it down in a few swigs, until I had yeasty bubbles running down my chin, and I burped a loud belch that tasted of hops and sounded like a whimper.
“I went back to the old witch,” Mom said. “She said she had given me her most potent potion. There was nothing else she could do to help me. It was up to me if I wanted to stop this.” Mom tapped her belly. “You.”
“It’s alright, Mom. Really,” I said, and I kissed her on her temple, not because it was alright, but because I wanted her to stop.
Mom went on. She gave me a long list of exhausting workout routines that no fetus should survive. Jumping, squatting, running, laying flat on her back with a stack of hard cover encyclopedia volumes on her tummy, pushing, vomiting, chain smoking, praying. When nothing worked, she doubled the intensity of her sessions and introduced fast sprints, push-ups, bicycle crunches, vigorous rope jumping. She stopped at nothing to abort me.
“Grandma, can I take a picture of you and Mom together?” my six-year old asked.
I shook my head and said, “Not now, I’m talking to grandma.”
But Mom said “I’m ready,” as she pulled a lipstick from her purse, delighted.
“How do I look?” she asked after applying it a little beyond the corners of her mouth.
“Gorgeous,” I said.
We put our heads together, and I faked a smile looking into the yellow Kodak box.
I kicked some pebbles with my hiking boots. My eyes welled with tears, and I felt an urge of the feral type, to jump into the lake and sink slowly into its glacial water with groping hands.
“But you, my girl,” Mom continued, “you clung to my womb for dear life. Like a leech,” Mom said.
“Like a leech?” This was more than I could take.
“Yes. Attached. You know what I mean,” she said, her hands clasps in fists like she was describing a war hero. “So determined to live. So, how can I put it, stubborn? Do you understand me?”
I nodded, but I couldn’t bear hearing another word. “We’d better get going. It’s getting cold.” I kissed Mom once on each cheek, put a shawl around her shoulders, collected the blanket, the chairs, the cooler, and I started walking back to the truck. I readied myself to drive past mountains and rivers that I could barely imagine existing without her.
We moved slowly through a group of amateur fishing aficionados. The park ranger gave instructions: If you decide to kill a trout, kill it quickly. As soon as you land it. A solid whack above the eyes.
By the time I sat behind the wheel, I was drained, broken.
Mom? She was hungry. “Can we go to one of those restaurants where you can have seconds?”
“Sure,” I said. What I didn’t say was, how could you be so cruel and so oblivious at the same time?
“So, tell me again. Why doesn’t it get dark at night?” Mom asked for the tenth time.
“Because we are very close to the North Pole,” I said, trying not to show my irritation. I had been answering the same questions over and over since she arrived. I needed silence. Her silence.
“And why did it take me almost two days to get here from Colombia?”
“Because you had to fly across the whole of the United States,” I said, but thought, how many times do I have to tell you?
“Did I fly over the Ocean?”
“Did I fly over countries?”
“Which ones?” she asked as she fogged then wiped clean her bifocals.
“I already told you.”
“Well. Obviously. I. Forgot.” Mom took a notebook out of her purse. “Have you seen my reading glasses?”
“They are on your nose.”
“Oh,” she said readjusting her glasses. “Where were we? Oh the countries. Which ones did I fly over?”
“I’m not sure, Mom.”
“Well, so-rry. Didn’t mean to bother you,” she said, half disappointed, half indignant.
Instead of a list of countries, I gave her what I thought to be a simplified geography, something easy to remember so that she would stop asking.
“What happens, Mom,” I said as if I was about to reveal a big secret, “is that Alaska used to be a part of Russia.”
“Russia,” she repeated as she took notes. “I thought we were in the United States.”
“We are,” I said, realizing that Mom was even more confused now. “The United States bought it.”
“So we are in Russia.”
“No, Mom. We are in the United States. America bought Alaska from Russia. So Alaska is no longer Russian. It’s American.”
“Nonsense. If the Chinese buy Mariquita, would you say that Mariquita is no longer in Colombia?”
I did not have the energy to argue with her. I sighed and watched her write in her diary. “I didn’t know you kept a diary.”
“I don’t. Diaries are for teenagers.”
“So, what’s that?” I asked pointing at her notebook.
“What? This? My impressions about Russia. That’s all. Beautiful, beautiful land. The Russians too. Good looking people. Love their little houses at the cemetery. So quaint.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “I think you’re losing your marbles.”
She leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “So will you, eventually. You’ll see.” She put her index finger over her lips. “Quiet now. La niña is asleep,” she said, pointing at my daughter.
I looked in the rearview mirror, then over my shoulder. There she was. The youngest of this chain of women; mouth half open, slivers of drool trickling out of her tiny mouth, a collection of fresh water shells slipping through her fingers. Empty shells, shells that once had life squirming inside them, shells that no longer were oysters or pearls or mussels. Disemboweled shells.
Fifteen years after our conversation on the shores of Mirror Lake, Mom died. She was seventy-four, and although she had lost a few faculties to Alzheimer’s, by the time she died Mom still possessed traits she was never at risk of losing. She had a vein on her right temple that throbbed whenever she and life didn’t agree. One could take the pulse of our family on it. This eloquent vein changed color or throbbed or both, depending on the gravity of our sins. We could foresee the severity of the punishment just by looking at her temple. Its color was our jury and the force of its pulse our sentence. She also had strong hands wrapped in complex venous circuits that ran like a neat motherboard from the wrists to her fingertips. With those hands she could strike and caress, sicken and cure all at once if so she desired. And her gaze. Right until the day she died, Mom had a gaze that if she wanted could pin you to the wall and send you into a cold emotional exile, out of where one came only by the power of another of her gazes: the redeemer, the knight-in-shining-armor-look that made it all possible. Mom could do that sort of thing.
I like to think that on her last night, she went to bed early. She was tired, and the world and its physical realities had lost their luster a long time ago. She could hear the life outside percolate into her apartment in diapasons, the cacophony of Medellín: children playing, cars crunching gravel, sirens blaring in the distance like drowning mermaids. So much noise. People and their whims were also beginning to bother her. “The more I get to know people, the more I love my dog,” she said often, even though she had no dog.
I like to think that she pulled the covers over her head and filled her lungs with the lavender fragrance of the sheets. She used to be able to smell herself, she remembered, but she no longer smelled of anything. She made a mental list of the past aromas her body had given off throughout the years. Guava jelly when she was a little girl, blood when she became a woman, patchouli one of her children gave her once for mother’s day, then all of them in the potpourri of her menopause, and after that, nothing. Her body was a dry riverbed devoid of milk or blood or any secretion, for that matter. She concluded that her body had become uninhabitable, a condemned house about to implode on its foundations.
Then she started her nightly prayers, dozed off the way she always did, and tried to finish them when she woke up a few minutes later. But she could not remember which one she had been working on. Was it an Our Father or a Glory Be? So feeble was her mind, so capable of orchestrating guerrilla attacks on her memory, so at ease with its hit-and-run tactics that offered her fleeting rays of radiant lucidity only to quickly replace them with long periods of stagnant darkness.
“One of these days,” she used to say, “I’m going to unscrew my head and give it a good wash inside.”
It was getting more and more difficult for her to keep tabs on life. The days of the week had become indiscernible from one another. Church on Sundays, or was it Tuesdays? Grocery shopping on Wednesdays, or was it Saturdays? She watered her plants every other day; only that night, she wasn’t so sure. She feared that the exuberant fern that had taken her years to grow might die if another day went by without water. Then again, maybe she had already watered it. Her life was further complicated by misplaced objects: hairbrushes, reading glasses, house keys, all of which seemed to have mischievous minds of their own. She fell asleep wishing for a better tomorrow. Tomorrow, she hoped, she would emerge from this chrysalis of gloom. She would wake up feeling lighter. Less clumsy, more nimble. Less lost, more assertive. Less tight-chested, more free.
A noise woke her up. An ominous black witch moth broke the window, greedy to enter Mom’s room, to flutter its wings against the walls, to hover over her bed. She found herself gasping for air, making snorting noises that she didn’t recognize as her own. Something had locked beneath her sternum, obstructing her breathing. A rush of panic settled in her eyes.
“God, I can’t breathe,” she said between anoxic gasps.
Swaths of colors flashed in glittery snapshots of rain under her eyelids. Then she massaged her chest with one hand, then the other, then both. She pushed her clavicles down and whatever was lodged in her chest began to expand and to sharpen, climbing up her windpipe like a moving millipede leaving her belly.
San Gregorio, Virgen del Carmen, don’t abandon me, she repeated in her head like a mantra, invoking every one of her divine saviors. Her muscles hardened like cardboard left to dry in the sun, and in a short convulsive burst of speech, she called the live-in nurse.
“Don’t let me die,” she whispered in the nurse’s face. She threw a couple of slow-motion punches at the nurse as though she was drowning in quick sand. Then, with clutching hands, she tugged at the nurse’s skirt. For a few seconds, the nurse wrestled with Mom’s grip.
“Don’t let me die,” she pleaded once more. My mother’s mouth made silent O’s in moribund exhalations of moist air. Her head lunged upwards with an involuntary jerk, and her body contorted with pain. She felt the nurse’s hands on her chest. They pressed down on her sternum with little pushups that burnt my mother’s skin.
The nurse fumbled with the telephone. Words filled the room, mom, dying, come, soon. “You are not alone,” the nurse said. “I’m right here with you.”
Then Mom began to snore in the “agonal respiration,” ragged, gurgling patterns of breathing typical of those near death. Her chest bolted as if hit by lightning. The first bolt, like a violent hiccup, made her chest rise in the air; a few seconds later came a weaker strike, followed by something similar to a quiet belch. Then her lower jaw went south and east, changing the geography of her face in quick succession. There was tension, then pain, then agony, then silent resignation. My mother’s face rose and fell inside the perfect fit of the nurse’s arms.
Then Mom felt something similar to drunkenness. Her head swelled, and the crown relaxed and quivered, then melted into a blue sky. She was floating. Her thoughts went out like fireworks exploding onto each other, and in a flash of sparks, she found herself in the most beloved piece of soil in the world, Mariquita. And there, in that place that smelled of avocado and earth after rain, she was no longer my mother. She was Carmen. Just Carmen.
Childhood. Innocence. Trees.
The beats of a slow cumbia meander from their house and onto the backyard where the little girls chase each other. Carmen and her younger sister Gilma climb an avocado tree, its branches heavy with oily fruits. They carry a guanábana they found on the ground. One of the two cracks open the soursop’s spiky skin and its white pulp oozes milky juice. They chew on wads of the creamy, fibrous flesh, gargle it in the back of their throats, and then cough it out, pretending it’s phlegm. They’ll get a good whipping if their mother catches them perched up in a tree, acting like men. They speculate what it would be like to be a woman. They sit cross-legged on the tree branch, smoking imaginary cigarettes and drinking from invisible teacups, pinkies up in the air. When this gets old, they clean and shine four black soursop seeds, and they make earrings, which they clasp on each other’s earlobes. With the remaining soursop seeds, they make spitball bullets that they shoot like crazed cannonballs.
Food. Family. Home.
Carmen’s mother is teaching her and her two sisters how to make tamales. They found themselves gravitating towards the kitchen so often that they declared it the only place of the house where they truly felt at home. So much so, that now, they cook and sleep in the kitchen because it is through the preparation of food that they best assert their womanhood. Her mother cooks pork skin and ribs. She uses the gelatinous fat removed from the pork to make the guiso and fries in it onions, garlic, and saffron. When the guiso is ready, she mixes it with the rice, peas and corn dough. Carmen and her sisters lay on the table the plantain leaves to wrap the tamales, sandwiching the ingredients in two beds of corn dough. The two sisters tie theirs with twine while Carmen ties hers with red and blue ribbons sprinkled with glittery dust.
Women. Water. Blood.
Carmen is by the river with her two sisters and her five girls. They bend their naked bodies over the rocks and wash their wombs and their hearts. Who has the bloodiest of all? One of them asks. Carmen! They shout in unison. And the women surround her with the intertwined arms of a needy vine, while one of her girls carries out a song. Only this time, she halts the sweetness of her contralto voice at midsentence, and instead lets out a scream, more like an angry howl. The other women join in. So does Carmen who seems to be the angriest of all, until they hear the voices of other women crossing, naked, the cordillera. By the time the sun has sunk its teeth into the horizon, the water is thick and scarlet and there is not a single silent woman. Or one who isn’t angry. Or one with her womb and heart intact.
Earth. Love. Tears.
Carmen wraps the letter in a plastic bag and puts it in a small wooden box. It’s a lacquered rectangular thing he gave her after telling her it was from China, but she knows it isn’t. She knows the box is a cheap knickknack he probably bought at a bar, either before or after passing out. On the day he leaves her for a younger, prettier woman, she takes the box out and sets it on the ground. It’s Wednesday, and it’s beginning to rain. She walks inside and looks at the drops of rain bounce off the box, from the kitchen during the day, and from her bedroom at night. The weight of the life contained inside the box is beginning to push it into the ground. On Sunday after church, she buys a hand trowel, and with it she digs a hole to the center of the earth, places the box at the bottom, and covers it with wet soil that smells of magnolias. She doesn’t tell anyone, but this is the only love letter she ever receives.
She is in his arms. She is safe. Every concavity of his dark body fits nicely into the corresponding convexities of hers. There is a space on his chest where her face fits like the missing piece of a puzzle. She puts it there and hears the locking mechanism. Click. Perfect. His heart plays a tango, hers a bolero, and they hum and dance to all the music in the world. Husband and wife, man and woman. He is fire; she is the earth. Whatever he destroys, she’ll replenish. Gladly. Lovingly.
I like to think that Mom’s memories began to fade. A vacuum sucked her upward with a violent jerk as if an invisible parachute had opened above her head. Then everything was quiet, everything was white, everything stopped. She no longer gasped for air. Her face became unhinged at the jaws. A bead of foamy saliva formed in the corners of her mouth. Her neck turned yellow like a withered daffodil. Her eyes closed with a slow flutter.
It didn’t smell of sulfur and no marauding vultures bid her farewell. An unfathomable chasm of nothingness swallowed her whole.